Continuing debate over Skip Gates's "Wonders of the African World"

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Tue Dec 28 09:21:52 MST 1999


(Frank G. Thomson Research Professor Harvard University)

(These Comments Are In  Response To Henry Gates' Rebuttal Of Professor Ali
Mazuri's Critique Of Gates' Film Series "Wonders of The African World";
Gates' Reply Was Put On Internet Nov. 12th, 1999)

As far as I am able to determine, none of the African-American
Intellectuals here at Harvard University has contributed thus far to the
very important discussion indeed firestorm around my colleague Henry Louis
Gates' film series, "Wonders of the African World." I am now on the elderly
side of the African-American faculty around Harvard these days (I formally
retired as of Spring Term 1999 at 68 years of age) and I was expecting
someone among the younger age-cohort of progressive Black intellectuals
here at Harvard to join the ranks of Black intellectuals who have rightly
challenged the intellectually atrocious film series that Henry Gates has
served up for American viewers for White viewers mainly I think. Among the
younger age cohort of progressive Black intellectuals at Harvard whom I
thought would join this discussion were the following: Christopher Edley
and Lant Guinier in the Law School; Cornel West in Theology/Afro-American
Studies; Loran Matory in Anthropology/Afro-American Studies; Larry Bobo in
Sociology; and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham in History/Afro-American Studies.
So the absence so far of any participant from my Black colleagues here at
Harvard in critiquing Gates' intellectually shameful film series, has
partly sparked my decision to join this criticism.

But it was especially Henry Gates' response to his critics especially to
Professor Ali Mazuri-that really pushed me over the edge, so to speak; that
fired me up enough to join the discussion.  I've known Henry Gates as an
academic colleague quite well during the past decade of his tenure here at
Harvard. I was part of the Afro-American Studies Appointments Committee
that selected him in fact.  I had a good collegial academic relationship
with Henry Gates up to about 1995/1996 academic year, at which point I
decided to probe Gates' particular style and modus operandi as a Black
academic entrepreneur intellectual , in context of forerunner Black
academic entrepreneur intellectuals like the Sociologist Charles Spurgeon
Johnson and the Historian Carter G. Woodson both of whom I worship. My
probe of Gates was for a chapter in an ongoing three volume study of the
20th century African-American Intelligentsia.

AFRICAN AMERICAN INTELLIGENTSIA, Volume I of which might get published by
late 2000. The chapters in the three volume manuscript (now nearly all
written after 25 years or so in the making) comprise mainly case study
probes of the intellectual careers of specific individuals (Horace Mann
Bond, John Aubrey Davis, Ralph J. Bunche. Martin Kilson-myself that is);
case study Probes of Black political class professionals (Adam Clayton
Powell, Gen. Colin Powell); and case study probes of intellectual discourse
produced by a Given Black intellectual which make up the majority of the
chapters in the Three volumes (e.g., Harold Cruse, E. Franklin Frazier,
Carter G. Woodson , Ira Reid, Ida Wells Barnett, St. Clair Drake, Kwame
Anthony Appiah, Orlando Patterson et. al. - the latter two are part of an
extended dissection and probe of contemporary Black establishmentarian and
conservative intellectuals in Volume II and Volume III).

My chapter on Henry Gates deals with his intellectual discourse over the
past decade or so. As I searched the numerous articles he has published
(including his memoir COLORED PEOPLE) dealing with the character of
African-American social, cultural and political patterns, I discovered two
things that I disliked about Gates' intellectual discourse. One was an
almost neurotic need to couch discourse on African-American socio-cultural
and political patterns in what I call "Black put-down terms," a mode of
intellectual discourse on  Black realities that Gates' intellectual
confrere Kwame Anthony Appiah is also addicted to, I should add.

Second, much of Henry Gates' discourse on African-American socio-cultural
and Political patterns exhibits a thoroughly chameleon trait an almost
manic need to produce a discourse on Black realities that migrates between
a "Black put down" or "Black averse" mode, on the one hand, and, on the
other hand, a seemingly redeeming "Black friendly" mode, though in ultimate
essence the redeeming posture is phony.

This chameleon trait so fundamental I think to Henry Gates as an
Intellectual stood out as I read his reply to Professor Ali Mazuri's fully
valid critique of Gates' film series "Wonders of the African World." The
overall character of Gates' reply is one of "an intellectual dodge." By
which I mean, a clever bid to translate the overwhelming negatives of his
film series into intellectual positives. By "overwhelming negatives", I
refer to 1) the numerous intellectually convoluted or twisted put downs of
African realities in the film series, and 2) the Eurocentric derived
irreverent posturings toward African realities by Henry Gates, even while
simultaneously characterizing a given African reality as positive, as "an
African Wonder." As Ali Mazuri rightly put it: "Gates seemed incapable of
glorifying  Africa without demonizing it in the second breath."

Henry Gates' reply to Professor Ali Mazuri's valid critique of "Wonders Of
the African World" is, then, a premier example of discourse as an
intellectual dodge, something Gates is quite adept at, I suggest. Henry
Gates paints several self-serving images of himself seemingly objectively
rendered and weaves betwixt and-between them, straining, for what might be
called a self-portraiture crescendo to hook his readers on. But don't be
caught by any of it, snared in Gates' self-portraiture trap so to speak.

For starters, Henry Gates would have his readers believe that an academic
year spent in the village society of one of the few genuinely progressive
African states in the early 1970s Tanzania translated automatically into a
socialist friendly demeanor on his part. Gates would have us believe,
furthermore, that courses taken at the University of Cambridge by him in
the 1970s under a genuinely progressive African intellectual like Wole
Soyinka also automatically translated into a progressive friendly demeanor
on Gates' part. But don't you believe it. Henry Gates' intellectual
arrogance is such that he thinks he can get people to believe just about
anything. With this verbal trickery, then, Gates is pretending a kind of
"progressivism by association syndrome," so to speak. But what has been
unique about Wole Soyinka whom Gates parades around in his speaking and
writing as his African intellectual mentor is precisely Soyinka's lack of
verbal trickery.

For Gates, however, verbal trickery is his stock in trade. During the past
30 years of predatory and kleptocratic governing classes in most African
states including especially Soyinka's own country of Nigeria, Wole Soyinka
has exhibited a courageous and rare commitment to a Progressive African
intellectual identity. The kind I wish I could live up to if required. The
kind that the great Frantz Fanon and the great Camara Laye (in Sekou
Toure's Guinea) represented in their intellectual careers. The kind, that
is, that dares to critique and challenge what's vicious, venal, and
predatory among one's own natal cultural and political milieu one's own
ethnic/tribal and nation state milieu that is and thereby run the clear
risk of autocratic and cruel retaliation that has been a built in component
most independent African states over the past 30 years.  It takes a special
kind of intellectual gall and chutzpah-as well as an incredible capacity
for intellectual fantasy for a Henry Gates to portray himself at
intellectual parity with Wole Soyinka . Such self-portrayal by Gates is not
just an historical travesty, but just plain laughable, I submit.  I hope
Wole Soyinka is aware of how his name is being manipulated by Henry Gates.

What is more, note that Gates does this with the use of what he thinks is a
hip term -"tough love."  I seriously doubt that in articulating the
proposition that "Criticism, like charity, starts at home," Soyinka was
trying to teach what Gates characterizes as a "tough love" lesson to his
Nigerian intellectual colleagues who were more reluctant to challenge
authoritarian regimes in their country. Put another way, Soyinka was not
beating his chest in public around attributes of his own genuinely
progressive intellectual makeup, he was not showing off with his political
discourse that is- something Henry Gates is manicly addicted to, I think.
Though Henry Gates is not aware of it, "tough love" is a lightweight pop
journalistic term that tells us nothing about a genuinely courageous and
independent progressive African intellectual like Wole Soyinka.

On the other hand, however, "tough love" has much utility for Henry Gates'
perpetual bid to cloak his penchant for what I call Black put down
discourse in seemingly high minded language like "tough love." In doing so,
Gates aims to deflect attention from the true goal that his Black put down
discourse serves-namely, the establishmentarian and conservative patterns
in contemporary American society, and globally too. In putting "tough love"
into Soyinka's mouth, Henry Gates is, above all, trving to play back his
way to a special public self-portraiture-one he consider politically

 At bottom, Henry Gates' myopia regarding his own self-importance can be
viewed as the main source of both the filmic failure of "'Wonders of the
African World" and the intellectually tacky Black put down aura that
pervades it-an aura that bespeaks the film series' politics, actually. What
else can explain the absence of a serious didactic format for the narration
of the series a formalized instructional design or format for conveying to
American viewers a serious quantum of substantive information about African
History and Culture? What else can explain the unbelievably arrogant
irreverence that Henry Gates exhibited at so many levels in the series?
The irreverence associated with wearing the lounge attire found in
bourgeois quarters of our American suburbs when visiting traditional
sanctuaries of the Ethiopian Coptic Church, for example. The irreverence
associated with snide comments about the historical authenticity of the
Coptic Church's claim of possessing the Ark, and the related irreverence
associated with Gates' posturing about climbing the gate to the hallowed
site where the Ark is located. Henry Gates wouldn't dare behave with such
flippant and infantile irreverence in a comparable visit to a traditional
sanctuary of Judaism in Israel, of the Church of England, of the Holy See
In Rome, or anywhere else in the West. He wouldn't dare, I assure
you....This kind of behavior by Henry Gates is reserved only for Black
world realities! And that Gates can quote to his readers a fawning comment
on "Wonders of the African World" by the current governing class in
Ethiopia as a serious rebuttal of the charge by Mazuri and others that his
demeanor as interviewer was irreverent toward traditional sanctuaries of
African civilization is another dimension of Gates' myopic self importance.
His chutzpah too.

Above all, the irreverence associated with Henry Gates' characterization of
the historical dynamics of the Atlantic Slave Trade-the man's lack of
simple decency of spirit toward that devastating historical trauma visited
upon Black people in the tens of millions by capitalist Christendom at its
crudest-struck me as the foulest of all. If American viewers-White
Americans especially-were relying upon Henry Gates' "Wonders of the African
World" for a chance to finally come-to grips with the raw cultural
barbarity of the Atlantic Slave Trade that our own component of the
capitalist Christian state system helped to perpetrate against African
peoples, their disappointment must have been gigantic.

Or perhaps not., for what Henry Gates dished up in his film series was a
characterization that enabled many of our White American compatriots to
persist in their longstanding, arrogant, and stubborn condition of moral
denial-denial of systemic collaboration in and much responsibility for what
can only be called the "Black Holocaust." Like Ali Mazuri and other critics
of "Wonders of the African World," I was aghast at Henry Gates' indecent
verbal maneuvers in his interviews relating to the Atlantic Slave Trade.
Verbal maneuvers that emphasized almost solely the role of African errand
boys for European dominance (African slave raiders, predatory African
traditional chiefs and kings and religious authorities, etc.) in fostering
the Atlantic Slave Trade. As Blackworld scholars for a century now-from the
great W.E.B.Dubois (the research institute Gates directs at Harvard bears
his name) to the late Trinidad scholar Eric Williams and the late Nigerian
scholar and dear friend of mine Kenneth 0. Dike - have uncovered along with
the White scholars, the Atlantic Slave Trade sternmed overwhelmingly from
the military, naval technological prowess, and political economic prowess
of Europe via avis African peoples and other world peoples too, Regardless
of what African errand boys (or. as the case may be, Chinese errand bovs in
the East Asia context, Arab errand boys in the Middle East context, so
forth And so on) did or did not do.

As Ali Mazuri rightly characterized this part of Henry Gates' series:
"Gates manages to make an African to say that without the participation of
Africans there would have been no slave trade! How naive about power can we
get?"  Indeed. Just the slightest glance at instances in ancient and
medieval history of imperial and feudalistic predatory state societies (or
just a visit to the movie "Brave Hearts") would inform Henry Gates about
the comparative history of slaving dynamics. Those dynamics were
overwhelmingly power class dynamics, with vicious and predatory power
classes among vanquished societies typically preferring power benefits from
participation in imperially imposed slaving dynamics over loyalty to their
natal cultural/political unit (the tribe, province, region, etc.). But this
historical ignorance on Henry Gates' part in regard to the comparative
history of slaving systems is only part of Gates' problem-his "Black
problem", if you will. At the core of Henry Gates' insensitivity toward the
massive historical trauma for the everyday oppressed and violated African
persons (children, women, and men) in the long night of the Atlantic Slave
Trade is Gates' deep personality need to participate in contemporary
establishmentarian and conservative put down discourse toward Black world

And, as already noted, for Henry Gates this is always a chameleon
choreographed Black put down modality, which can find him at one time both
putting down Blackness and pretending to affirm Blackness too. But Henry
Gates knows well that the American establishment, in its several
formations, gets the message of his intellectual maneuvers. And I'm sure it
does. One last theme relating to Henry Gates' intellectual persona requires
mentioning. Gates makes a major effort to rebut Ali Mazuri's charge that
"Wonders of the African World" series does not make rigorous use of
authoritative scholars that one expects from a serious documentary film.
Gates gets around this criticism from Mazuri partly by claiming that his
film was not quite a documentary but rather "was framed as a travelogue
which allowed me to show both the diversity of the vast African continent
and the African peoples themselves." This is bunkum, I submit. The best
travelogues are anchored by a keen and careful documentary type
infrastructure, which means they seek to have a serious didactic thrust,
and such a thrust implies leaning on serious authoritative advice.

Of course, Henry Gates lined up a show list of official authoritative
advisers for his series as he eagerly points out in last section of his
reply to Professor Mazuri. Gates is too shrewd an academic entrepreneur
intellectual not to protect himself on this flank, need I add. But lining
up authoritative advisers is one thing; honestly and effectively employing
their advice and knowledge is quite another matter altogether. A matter I
think that was of very little interest to Henry Gates when making "Wonders
of the African World."

As I started off these comments, I've known Henry Gates for a decade and I
can say that I watched and probed his "MO"  as much as any of his Harvard
colleagues have. At the center of Gates' "MO" is a convoluted autocratic
component, and at the level of his academic/administrative functioning that
autocratic component of Gates' persona is never far from the surface. I
speak from institutional experience in this matter of Henry Gates'
autocratic trait, for throughout his decade presence at Harvard I (along
with Professor Preston Williams-Divinity School-Professor Charles
Willie-School of Education-Professor Peter Gomes-Divinity School-Professor
Werner Sollors Comparative Literature -and Several others) have been on the
Advisory Board of the W.E.B.Institute. Like the advisory boards of other
research institutes or centers at Harvard, the presumption is that the
chair or director of such centers will confer with such boards through
maybe two meetings a sernester-depending upon relevant situations and
sometimes more frequently.

If I recall correctly, the DuBois Institute Advisory board was convened
twice a year during Gates' first year, once a year during the following two
years (at which meetings Gates presented a self-serving balance sheet of
his achievements), and  since then the Advisory Board of the DuBois
Institute has not been convened-a period of about six years!!  All
decisions from the character of the Institute's funding, choice of
lecturers for lecture series like the DuBois Lecture and the Nathan Huggins
Lecture, etc. emanate from the very wise head of Henry Louis Gates. A
couple of Advisory Board members have discussed Gates' tacky autocratic
"MO" within the affairs of the DuBois Institute among ourselves, but none
of us has ever moved in any substantive way to redress this Gatesian
autocracy, and I don't even think any of us knows what the formal Harvard
rules are (if there are any) for redressing this Gatesian autocracy. I have
personally queried Henry Gates regarding the state of the Dubois
Institute's Advisory Board (I queried Gates quite candidly on many other
issues too) a state of affairs that is an insult to the members of the
Advisory Board. I can report that Henry Gates could care less.

There is also another dimension to my skepticism that Henry Gates made any
serious use of his show list of authoritative advisors for his film series.
My DuBois Institute experience with Gatesian autocracy led me, a couple of
years ago, to decline several persistent requests from Henry Gates to join
the Advisory Board of the proprietary structure that he formed to produce
the Microsoft ENCARTA CDROM on Black History and the hard copy ENCYCLOPEDI
AFRICANA version, recently out from Basic Books. Henry Gates and Kwame
Anthony Appiah transformed the original plans that the late Professor
Nathan Huggins created to produce the ENCYCLOPEDIA AFRICANA from the
academic realm of the W.E.B. DuBois Institute to a privatistic structure-a
private firm, 20 if you will, headed by Gates and Appiah as sole
proprietors . I queried around about whether this was officially kosher,
this transforming a Professor Huggins' designed research project within the
academic realm of the Harvard DuBois Institute into a proprietary
structure. I did so in an informal way I might add, dropping notes on the
matter to my longstanding friend Archie Epps (who was Dean of Students-the
first African-American Administrator in Harvard College) and to one of my
progressive Harvard academic colleagues who happened to be a part of the
Afro-American Studies faculty, Professor Cornel West. Epps said that he
didn't know what the formal Harvard rules were, so I told Epps that I
wasn't that concerned about the matter, so he need not inquire any further.

 My progressive academic colleague Cornel West never got back to me about
the matter at all, as I recall. As I told both Epps and West in my notes to
them, it was my simple minded understanding that a project conceived as
Professor Huggins conceived the ENCYCLOPEDIA AFRICANA project to be a
research production of the DuBois Institute, Ought to remain an Institute
affair in substance whatever privatistic choreographing might be done to
it. So whatever financial benefits that resulted from the end product of
Professor Huggins' ENCYCLOPEDIA AFRICANA project (such as the Microsoft
ENCARTA CD-ROM on Black History and the hard copy version) ought to become
part of the research funds or endowment of the W.E.B. DuBois Institute
which God knows deserves serious financial endowment after nearly 30 years
existence. For me anyway, this is the only academically honorable thing to
do in this kind of situation. One should not cynically pursue one's own
self serving and money enhancing agenda as a scholar, which is what the
privatistic arrangement set up in regard to Professor Huggins' original
plans for the ENCYCLOPEDIA AFRICANA project By Henry Gates and Kwame
Anthony Appiah looks like to me. But maybe I'm just a naive old fashioned
academic in these matters, I suspect. Thus, I want to conclude these
critical reflections on Henry Gates' film series - "Wonders of the African
World"- and on the intellectually convoluted character of Henry Gates
himself with some thoughts on the future interaction between progressive
African-American intellectuals, on the one hand, and the establishmentarian
and politically cagey Henry Gates on the other hand.

First of all, there should be no doubt among progressive African-American
intellectuals that Henry Gates as the leading African-American academic
entrepreneur intellectual in the country these days has an intellectual
persona and modus operandi vis a vis Black world realities that is riddled
through with establishmentarian and sometimes anti-Black purposes. Henry
Gates, therefore, warrants much more scrutiny by progressive
African-American intellectuals than he has received to date. Happily for us
in this regard, Henry Gates has unwittingly helped us with the
intellectually tacky and arrogant Black put down aura that pervades his
BBC/PBS film series.

However, to be effective in the important task of scrutinizing an
Incredibly cagey academic entrepreneur intellectual like Henry Gates
requires, I think, any progressive Black intellectual to keep a kind of
respectful distance from the chap. Why? Because Henry Gates is not only a
master of the intellectual dodge as I have tried to delineate in these
comments. Henry Gates is also a masterful manipulator of strategic goodies
at his disposal as a Black academic entrepreneur. I suppose that's how
Gates maneuvered my old friend Professor Ali Mazuri to pen a friendly blurb
for the coffee table book version of "Wonders of the African World." I say
this because when the secretary at the DuBois Institute mailed notices to
Advisory Board members regarding the lecturers for the Nathan Huggins
Lecture Series always selected solely from the wise head of Henry Gates by
the wav, since the Advisory Board is operationally superfluous-I discovered
that on the List of future lecturers was Professor Ali Mazuri (November
2000 1 think).

To perform the much needed task of intellectually scrutinizing a cagey and
politically opportunistic academic entrepreneur American intellectual like
Henry Gates (or, say, like Professor Samuel Huntington who's in
International Studies here at Harvard and others like this at Harvard and
other universities around the country) , it is best for anyone who is a
progressive intellectual and scholar to keep a respectful distance visa
versa resources (goodies) at Gates' disposal. Even rather simple ones like
invitations to strategic dinners at his house. For Henry Gates anyway
they're his fish hooks, so to speak. And he has snared a lot of
strategically useful fish I might add, some who could otherwise contribute
to the important task of intellectually scrutinizing the latter day Booker
T. Washington accommodationism dimension of Henry Gates' intellectual
persona. Remember that it is not easy to "drink the King's wine and
challenge the King too...."

For me anyway, this is not an easy issue even though I Know that there are
times when "the King" must be challenged, whether one sups his table or
not. So for myself here at Harvard University during the past decade of
Henry Gates' tenure here, I've kept a respectful distance from Henry Gates'
goodies in order to reserve my independence of action. Luckily for me of
course, my academic appointment needs and resources, here at Harvard have
not overlapped with "King Gates", unlike the situation for other
African-American faculty here whose appointment Henry Gates had a hand
in-such as Professor William Wilson--and thus who are inclined to be rather
discreet in their interactions with "King Gates."

I have no such dependence ties to "King  Gates." So when there was one
instance in the past decade when my resource needs relating to a Fiftieth
Anniversary Conference on Gunnar Myrdal's "An American Dilemma" that I
conceived and mainly organized (with marvelous assistance from Dr. Randall
Burkett then associate administrator at the DuBois Institute but who was
later unceremoniously dismissed by Henry Gates) became something of an
issue between me and Henry Gates, I let Gates know that I was willing to do
battle if necessary. One should never act weak in the midst of Gatesian
autocracy, or any autocracy for that matter. Wole Soyinka has taught us
that nobly. Not, of course, in the pop journalistic way that Henry Gates
characterizes Soyinka's intellectual courage so as the advance Gates' own
phony public self portraiture.

So I try to advise my progressive Black intellectual peers especially to be
wary of "King Gates" strategic offerings his fish hooks, if at all
possible. And I'd like to address this especially to the up coming younger
generation of African-American intellectuals and scholars, particularly
those who seek to fashion a progressive outlook for themselves. Finally, we
progressive Black intellectuals especially do indeed have to perform the
scrutinizing task in regard to establishmentarian and/or conservative Black
intellectuals like Henry Gates, because no one else will. Above all, we
progressive Black intellectuals still have a serious Black people agenda to
attend to. Namely: Protecting, advancing, and redeeming Black folks' honor,
both here in the United States and elsewhere in the globe.

MARTIN KILSON Frank G. Thomson Ph. D. Research Professor Harvard University
November 22nd , 1999

Louis Proyect

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